A chill rode the
breeze that rose with the sun, tugging shreds of fog across the tarn and up
toward the high stone porticos of the fortress.
Freya stretched, yawning, and bunched the furs up closer around her chin as she watched the young soldier dress. He was strong, confident, and unashamedly naked; youth gave him no cause to hide. His skin was perfect gold, unmarked, moving smoothly over clean flat muscle as he gathered his clothes. The hard training of the past months had polished away any adolescent softness, showing the man he had become, and fitness left him clenched and eager for action.
As a lover, he had been exactly as she’d expected: keen, athletic, persistent. What he’d lacked in finesse, he’d made up with enthusiasm, and the memory brought a small smile as she studied him in the growing light. She could not recall his name.
Seeing her awake, he smiled, and moved to kneel beside her pallet. “Good morning,” he said, and leaned in to kiss her. “Are we going down to eat?”
“You go.” She stretched again, yawning as she spoke, “I’ll be down shortly, there’s time.”
“But, I thought ….” He hesitated, looked uncertain, childlike for the first time. He didn’t need to put his thoughts into words, they were written in lines of petulance. As she watched, he weighed dashed hopes against his options, and asked sharply, “Will I see you again?”
Freya stroked his cheek and down across his soft, full lips. He was a smart boy; he would only need a shot of reality. “This campaign will be long and cold and bloody. We’ll be huddled in wet tents, sleeping on rocks, and hacking our way through flesh and blood for months. If the gods are kind and you see me anywhere, chances are it will be a long way off and you, like me, will be fighting to stay alive.” She leaned across to kiss his cheek. “Don’t wait around for me. Live and live well, because none of us know if we’ll live for very long.”
He stared hard at her, a frown spoiling his smooth brow, and she met the plea in his eyes with a calm smile. At last he stood, snatched up his belongings, and stalked from the room without a backward glance. Young hearts bent a long way before they broke, or else love and lust would have caused more carnage than wars.
Cold ached into the scar on her shoulder, stabbing and burning deep inside the joint where the tissues had fused roughly. Rolling over flat, she twisted her spine slowly, letting the cracks and pops ease some of the stiffness from her back; cold damp mornings just weren’t as easy to shrug off as they used to be. Sighing away any curses she might have uttered, she swung her feet onto the flagging and pushed back the tangled mess of her hair. It needed cutting.
Behind the stonework of the fireplace was a small washroom, its cistern filled with water, heated overnight by the fire. It had cooled as the fire died, and Freya worked the hand pump, drawing water warm enough to bathe into a narrow stone trough. She lowered herself in carefully, lying back so the meager warmth covered her shoulder and let it work the knots out of the gnarled flesh.
Eventually she sat up, pushing hair and water back from her face. She then pressed her left hand onto her shoulder as she tried to move her sword arm through its full range of movement. No amount of warmth was going to free the jag and tear or the crunch of cartilage in every rotation. Neither was the liniment she poured into her hand to rub over the scar, but she did it anyway, rubbing until a snarling altercation in the corridor outside dragged her out of the tub.
She slipped into a soft flannel tunic and opened her door, searching the gloom for the source of the noise. Dragan sat against the stonework, knees drawn up, his head down, resting on crossed arms. He looked up as she approached, and then put his aching head back down into his hands.
“Did someone trip over you?”
He grunted, lifted his face and rubbed his forehead, but gave no answer.
“You look awful.” Freya almost smiled. All the red from the wine flagon beside him had pooled in his eyes, and his whole forehead flinched as he squinted through the dim light. “And you smell dead. You’d better come inside and get cleaned up.”
Slowly he twisted, supporting himself against the wall as he stood, stooped, then forced his cramped back to straighten. At full height he seemed to fill the ancient passageway. Resting a hand on her shoulder, he limped painfully into the room, cursing the glare and looking for a shaded place to sit.
“By the gods, what did you do last night?” This time Freya did smile. In all the years she’d known him, she had never seen the big man in this state of devastation.
“I don’t remember. I started out at the graduation feast for the recruits. I thought you were there.” He rubbed at raw eyelids, either clearing his vision or smearing away memories.
“Yeah, I was there a while.” She moved back to the washroom, using the privacy first to pull on her soft suede breeches, then she cinched her belt in tight over the tunic. She called, “I’ll see how much more hot water I can draw for you.” The used bathwater had cooled to tepid, and hauling up and down on the pump topped it up to little more than half a tub of barely warmer water, but it would have to suffice. She clutched out a handful of salts and threw them, fizzing, into the water, then thought again and emptied the rest of the pot in as well.
“That water’s none too warm; I’d get into it now if I were you.” Kneeling at the fire, she fanned the embers until they caught, and lowered the kettle to the flame. “I’ll go down to your quarters and get you clean clothes. Want me to bring your armor up too? We might as well go down from here.”
Dragan nodded, mumbled unintelligibly, and stumbled toward the washroom.
Working down through the rabbit warren of the citadel, Freya passed a few stragglers, but most of the company was at breakfast by now. She crossed the open foyer of the main keep, passed the doorways to the vast dormitories, and set off upward again in the second wing, tracing familiar steps to her partner’s rooms.
Inside, the bedding was tangled and unmade, but apart from a few clothes folded on the shelves, there was nothing in the room to mark its occupancy. Moving quickly, she threw his cloak open on the pallet and tossed his clothes - a jerkin and breeches, his hauberk, cuirass halves, gauntlets and greaves - into a pile and then checked the washroom.
On the washstand beside the tub stood an empty wine flagon and the remains of a bread and cheese meal. There, too, was a small wooden box which she picked up and carried out to the main room, shaking it and listening to the rattle as she did. Gathering up the corners of the cloak and hanging it easily over her good shoulder, Freya carried the sum total of this soldier’s life back to her own rooms.
From the washroom door, swinging her bundle down onto the floor and holding the small box against her side, she said, “If you want to eat, we’ll have to go down there soon.”
“I don’t want to eat.”
She smiled. “You want some tea? It’ll ease the head. And if you’re feeling anything like me, it’ll ease the neck, the shoulders, hips, and knees.”
He snorted, the laugh a little too close to self-pity, and called back, “Yeah. Strong.”
Sitting on the balcony palisade, turning his back on the cold beauty of the early morning tarn, Dragan sipped from his mug. A frown ticked as the bitter tea needled his gut, but in a few moments the soothing effect of the opiates had seeped through his cramped muscles and cooled the pain behind his eyes. The only concession he made to the cold was to hold the mug up near his face so the steam curled gently under his chin and across his cheek. Bare-chested he sat, the rough cloth of his cloak tied and belted at his hips, broad back proffered as a single defense against the elements.
Freya paused in the shadows. After twelve years of teamwork, her partner’s formidable physical presence could still check her stride. She watched him sitting, silent and still, like part of the stonework on which he balanced, as solid and impervious as rock.
There was nothing in him small or mean; the spirit of the man was what you saw. He was, in all things, constant. Stable. Immovable.
She smiled; through those years she’d relied on that strength too many times to recall, or chaffed at his stubbornness, or thanked the fickle gods for his patience. He was everything she knew she could not be and that was good. It served them well. It always had. He didn’t change, or he changed so slowly that the small erosions went unnoticed. In a world where chance was everything, where there was nothing she could hold that would always remain, he was her one sure thing. In this world, he was the only one, the only thing she trusted without question.
His hair, like her own, would have to be cut. It fell forward like a wreath of rusted wheat that knotted around his ears and bunched into ringlets across his shoulders. When they’d first met it was long, hanging halfway down his back in a thick, sun-bleached swathe over dense auburn curls. It had been the first thing she’d noticed, the beautiful hair. Then the shoulders. Then the butt, wrapped in black leather with easily twenty pounds of studs and buckles. Unnecessary expense; unnecessary weight in battle. Even now she smiled at the vanity. Back then it didn’t seem to matter, as long as it looked good.
Shaking her head at their foolishness, she silently wished for days like those again. Days when her knees did not crack when she bent and her joints moved without complaint. Her hair had been longer then, too, and the poppy tea she sipped as she walked didn’t wreak such havoc on her gut.
“You need a haircut.” She threw a sheepskin onto the bench. She sat, and then adjusted it up behind her shoulder, her own small concession to the cold of the stone. He didn’t answer, or even open his eyes, and so she continued. “Are you going to tell me why you’re sitting here like a shipwreck, sipping dope instead of eating at the mess and getting ready for Roll Call?”
He placed the mug between his knees, raised his face enough to look at her straight and said, “I’m not going.”
Sheep's blood ran as freely as a man's; looking into the wide yellow eye, Dragan believed man and beast stared after the same vision. Blinking slowly, but still, the beast hung by its back legs and watched as Lenka moved the bucket that caught the draining flow. Although he'd never once seen her flinch when a sword or arrow broke the skin of a man, Freya had wept more than once for the life of a dumb creature slain.
Horses were by far her most loved, but he'd known her to fret over dogs and goats left to run wild over a battlefield or abandoned after the event. She had once carried an injured pup for miles. She’d shared what little food she had, and would have shared his with it, too, if he'd agreed. He smiled at the memory. It was a need to love and nurture, he decided; the need for babies that every woman felt.
"More'nough for blodwurst, with the tongue and backfat." Lenka moved her full bucket safely aside, replacing it with a smaller bowl while Dragan turned and skinned the carcass. With hands on her hips, she watched and waited as he opened the gut and let the entrails drop. "Half to Pa," she reminded him, fishing through the fallen mass for the liver first. None would go to waste; the intestines and caul for sausage; the stomach, heart, lungs, and sweetbreads for hoggva; the liver and kidneys for tonight's supper. She worked at dividing the treasure evenly into her trays.
Blood stained the white skin of her arms and a smear crossed her cheek.
It was illogical. Food was needed and a beast was slain, but the slaughter and the butchery went hard on him, much harder than they should. For those like him who worked the land, meat was easily come by, and it was rare to go to sleep on an empty stomach. There were people all over the empire who had little enough to eat at all, and any kind of meat was a luxury seldom seen.
But it was blood. There had always been so much, and now, here in the peaceful green of the farm, a dam of blood seemed to break in his mind: years of life flowing out across the green fields and freezing in the rocky passes. He'd seen too much blood. This silent rush was just the last in a scarlet wash that never had an end.
His mind's eye flashed up the face of a man, numb with horror, iced with sweat, lying propped against a stone and holding his own innards. Between the gore soaked mail and piss stained breeches, a waterfall of lifeblood washed in pulses over his hands and gut, as fresh and red as any mountain poppy. He was staring after something, something only he could see, his breath coming in sharp, heaving jabs.
Dragan recalled that face, the creases deep in the corners of his eyes where he'd laughed in the face of his calling through too many seasons. He never knew his name or where in the green earth he had come from; never knew his past or any of his hopes. He knew he was good at what he'd done; the hair at his temples was turning white, so he'd survived more seasons than Dragan had himself.
But he remembered that man. He recalled his death as clearly as if he hung there before them from the bier rafters. It was the first time he'd begun to wonder why they killed these men who tried with all their might to kill them back.
He had to think of other things. As always, he thought of Freya.
He worked and slept and ate more than he'd eaten in years. Food enough to fill the emptiness, enough to sleep on a full belly every night. As he worked, and order began to emerge from the chaos he had inherited, the days warmed and lengthened and seemed to drag out the time until her release. He marked them down.
Every morning brought restless energy to drive him from his bed. There was always so much to do. But every day that restlessness plagued him with visions of her impatience. She was trapped in a world she hated, counting down the long days with him, but alone and a long way away. The thought left him cold. Every day he feared her impulsiveness would drive her from the safety he had wanted for her.
Lenka brushed her hair back with a gory forearm, drawing his attention. He said, "My mother is much better now. You should look to your own needs, and go home to your father's house."
She didn't look up but paused in her gut raking. "She’ll need me here a while yet."
"I think she’s relying on you being here. She’s poorly because she knows you will stay. If she has to get up and get on with life she will be better for it."
"No. I don't mind helping." She moved a lobe of liver, straightening it neatly in the tray. "Your father's death went hard on her."
"But it's not your place. I'm here now, and I can care for her."
"Shhht." She laughed, as if the idea was ludicrous, "I like to have a man to care for."
"I told you. I will be bringing a wife home, soon."
The smile dropped from her lips and she went back to her work, stripping the contents from the intestines in silence.
It was tempting to let the silence grow. He had tried once to discuss Freya with his mother, but she had refused to hear him, refused to respond. She liked the idea of Lenka for his bride. She may have carried that hope with her for years, and she would not discard it easily.
He'd carried his hope just as long. Recalling her face was as easy as closing his eyes and letting her light fill his mind. Always smiling; through snow and ice or blistering summers when they stood on mountains too close to the sun.
Dawn was always restless. Afternoons were heavy with fatigue, whether it came from walking, fighting, or boredom from the lack of both. But dawn was always restless.
The sun brought, every morning, a tightly coiled sense of urgency that burned in his stomach. There was uncertainty for what the day would bring, and with it, the need to leap up and begin. And always there was frustration at the ball that lay curled in her cloak. Over rocks or in tussocks of grass, it never seemed to matter to Freya where she slept, as long as she could go on sleeping.
The sky was silver and plumes of frost leapt from his lips on every breath. A grand, heavy silence weighed on everything around them, broken only by her snores. He nudged her again, "Freya, wake up. Time to move."
At the fire, he worked to raise a flame without too much smoke. Around the camp, others were stirring. Sixteen men, most he'd known for a season or more; some were so new their leather squeaked when they moved.
An arrow hit stone and skidded past his feet, the first in a hail of shafts, and all across the camp calls went up. Most were an alarm, some were cries of pain. He bolted toward his shield and sword, crouched under a dense knapsack of supplies. Before he'd cleared half the distance, his partner was beside him with his shield held up and their sword belts dragged between them. Together they gained refuge in the rocks and ice-tipped bushes.
"You're awake." Dragan peered through the half-light to the rock piles further up the slope. They were cover, not a lot, but that was where the archers hid.
"You started without me." She was grinning.
"Four or five of them," he guessed aloud, but Freya paid no heed to the archers or their place.
Her attention was divided between the half-light of the downhill slope where the next threat would likely emerge and a trio of their own men, unarmed and huddled in a clump of spiny gorse. Dragan stood, spinning his heavy pavise through the air like a monumental discus so it skidded over the gravel at their feet. He took her lighter shield as she handed it up, and holding it above their heads he covered her when she dashed to a cache of weapons and quickly threw them toward the trapped soldiers.
As they took up arms, sheltered from the arrows above by the heavy leather-bound planks of Dragan's shield, they stood to face a rush of infantry. Attackers burst from the tree cover and swarmed over the camp like a torrent of blood hungry ants. At his side, Freya clenched her teeth into the stubby haft of a dirk, watched for the deadly rain from above to cease, and moved into the fray with her sword drawn and ready.
There was no time and no need to speak. Wherever he moved his proficient steel, through a mass of sweat and muscle, she was beside or behind him. Fast; a blur of pale skin and leather. They had only a moment to dent the number of infantrymen before the archers from above could muster onto the field in support, and Dragan slashed wildly to injure, maim and slow. Death could be left to his partner.
It was in those first few moments that a fight was won or lost. For all their strength or skill, no battle could last past the endurance of men who were cold and exposed, underfed, and weighed down by the only protection they could carry. And so those moments gushed with blood. It sprayed in wild jets across the field; it muddied sandy ground and made the boulders slick under his feet.
Where frost was shrinking back from the rising sun, the heat of life flowed over his ankles and into his boots. Warm and thick and salty, it splashed into his open mouth as he gasped for breath, or sucked between gritted teeth on every bite of steel. And sweat ran over his skin in his body's vain attempt to cool and wash away the gory stain.
When the archers dropped down to meet them, they were still outnumbered but closing the gap. In their wisdom, the powers trained young men as archers first; it gave them a season or two with a chance to survive. It held them back from the hand to hand combat while they learned the face of warfare. And when they did run in, it sent tender boys into a charnel house.
They were fresh and wielding razor sharp blades; they were fair game.
Muscles in his back and shoulders burned, but adrenaline fortified the hot blood; his ears caught every thump and grind. The morning light was magnified, shining on crisp clear movement; on clean gashes and bone chips; on faces known and unknown enemies.
And when the frenzied movement finally stopped, when there was no one else swinging swords or axes, air rushed into his chest like a vast wheezing bellows and he flashed an assessment over the field.
They had survived.
Freya was doubled over, her legs were straight but she hung head down, gasping for air. The hands on her thighs were shaking like she was gripped by a fever and she coughed and spat.
"I need a pee."
He grinned and nodded, "Of course."
The scene was grim and his smile set hard for a moment before it twitched and fell from his cheeks. Four others stood. Two of theirs lay injured.
Every other body lying in mud was dead. Even if they continued to breathe, they were dead men. There was never a time they'd brought in prisoners. To lose your feet here was to die, sooner or later. Freya straightened, arched her back and made the same observations he had. She wiped a hand down her face, breathed the stench deep, and kicked herself into action.
Somewhere in the mess were the two small blades she always carried. Used together in one quick action, their razor sharp edges crossed each other just under a chin, and the light in a man's eyes dimmed and faded. She was swift, even gentle. And she always spoke to the man at her feet. Dragan had never asked what she said to them.
"Back to base?" he asked.
She nodded. Two others nodded. It was decided. They'd carry their wounded back to the camp they'd left the night before last.
Touchstone, by Letita Coyne.
60 000 wds / 270 pages
Pub. 1889 Labs, March 1, 2012.
Thanks for reading. Enjoy.